Agroecology in Latin America
Agroecology is an applied science that involves the adaptation of ecological concepts to the structure, performance, and management of sustainable agroecosystems. In Latin America, agroecology practices vary between regions due to the ideological differences between industrial agriculture and agroecology. Agroecology in Latin American countries can be used as a tool for conservationists in providing both ecological and economic benefits to the communities that practice it. It is also method that allows for high biodiversity and refuges for flora and fauna in these countries.
Agroecosystems serve as refuges for many flora and fauna of endemic and migratory species as well as provides a sustainable economic benefit to the communities that utilize its methodology. The relationship between agronomists and traditional practitioners, often subsistence farmers, has been termed an "exchange of wisdoms." This recognizes that some solutions and innovations to offer, while local knowledge systems developed over thousands of years have just as much to offer. This becomes evident still when the importance and uniqueness of local ecologies are understood as underpinning agricultural systems.
Traditional farming systems of Latin America were forged from a need to subsist on limited means. These techniques were developed from centuries of cultural and biological evolution by combining experiences and methods of other peasant farmers using locally available resources. Due to its origins Latin American, agroecology represents a low impact form of agriculture. Modern agriculture had become a process of "artificialization of nature" producing a monoculture of a very few crop species. Agroecology contrasts modern ecology in its use of polyculture, lack of synthetic fertilizers, minimal machinery and incorporation of successional stages. Agroecology attempts to benefit both people and the environment by maximizing crop yield, but also preserving the natural environment. It is often practiced by forming agroecosystems which are communities of plants and animals interacting with their physical and chemical environment that have been planted and harvested people.
Specific examples of economically successful agroecological systems include stabilizing hillside farming in Honduras. World Neighbors, an NGO, partnered with Honduran farmers to implement a program that helped practice soil conservation using techniques such as drainage and contour ditches, grass barriers, rock walls, and organic fertilization (e.g., use of chicken manure and intercropping with legumes). These changes allowed for an increase in grain yield of three to four times more than in previous years as well as supplied 1,200 families with grain. Another example, from the Andean region in Peru where a partnership of NGOs and locals lead to the implementation of a Pre-Columbian indigenous technique called Waru Warus. This technique involved raising the fields and surrounding them with dug out ditches filled with water, which regulates the soil temperature allowing for an extended growing season. In the district of Huatta, this method of using waru-warus have increased annual potato yields by 4-10 metric tons per hectare.
A final example from the Andean region where some peasant communities in Cajamarca and NGOs planted more than 550,000 trees and reconstructed terraces as well as drainage and infiltration canals.This change allowed for about half the population in the area - 1,247 families - to have land under conservation measures. For these people, potato yields have increased from 5 to 8 tons per hectare and oca (wood sorrel) yields have jumped from 3 to 8 tons per hectare.
The benefits of Agroecology are not only economic,but also vitally important ecologically. There is evidence to indicate that the agroecosystems with overstory shade trees like coffee or cacao plantations can rival the biodiversity of natural forests. The diversity is so high in these systems because the overstory is structurally and floristically complex which allows for many different niches to be available resulting in refuges. It is possible that shade coffee plantations are already serving as refuges, as seen in Puerto Rico where tremendous deforestation has occurred and yet the avian extinction rate is relatively low. Another system that is ecologically important is neotropical kitchen gardens. Kitchen gardens or home gardens are common in tropical and subtropical areas and they provide food and income for the family. Some kitchen gardens like the Mopan Mayan of southern Belize contain dozens of tree and plant species of different stories mimicking a natural forest. These patches, much like shade plantations, serve as refuges for flora and fauna such as in Belize where they are used by migratory birds.
Shade-grown coffee is an ecologically and economically important agroecosystem in which coffee plants are grown in the understory of a tree canopy. The shade of the canopy over the coffee shrubs encourages natural ecological processes and species diversity. These shade coffee plantations are in many Latin American countries including Brazil, Mexico, Belize and Guatemala. Shade coffee growers maintain complex coffee agroforests in which they produce coffee and manage the area's biota.
Shade coffee differs from the industrial open sun coffee plantations that increase faster coffee growth and reduce costs but result in decreased biota resources, refuge, nutrient cycling and increased broken terrain and soil erosion. Studies have been done in Latin America to prove the biological importance of shade coffee. In 1996, a scientific journal discussed the evolving industrial coffee plantation effects on Northern Latin American countries. Areas of high deforestation where traditional shade coffee methods are used have been found to be a crucial refuge for many biota. Another study in Veracruz, Mexico on shade coffee ecological relationships found that areas of lower cloud forest that are now coffee plantations are also a microclimate for native orchids and pollinators.
A cabruca is an agroforestry system found in the Latin American countries of Belize, Mexico, Ecuador, Peru, Costa Rica and Brazil. These cabrucas, largely run by smallholder farmers, are the production locations for cacao trees that grow underneath the canopy of mixed native trees. This forest canopy like the shade coffee has been found to provide a diverse ecosystem. An example of the biological importance of cabrucas can be found in Brazil’s main cacao production region Southern Bahia, Brazil. A 2008 study of biodiversity conservation in cacao regions found that the cabrucas in Southern Bahia are used by a significant amount of native flora and fauna. Due to parts of the region experiencing high deforestation and fragmentation, these cabrucas are providing habitat, fragment connection, and edge effect reduction. Another study in Costa Rica on the role of these cacao plantations in maintaining avian diversity found that the plantations do not substitute for a forest but do provide a home for a large number of avian generalist species.
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